“The Value of Culture” Revealed in a New BBC Radio Series by Melvyn Bragg

value of cultureYour pres­ence here indi­cates that you have an inter­est in cul­ture. But what, exact­ly is cul­ture? I’ve long addressed that per­haps too-broad ques­tion with a sim­ple work­ing def­i­n­i­tion: if Melvyn Bragg broad­casts about it, it’s prob­a­bly cul­ture. You may remem­ber the Eng­lish writer, pre­sen­ter, and House of Lords mem­ber from our posts on his doc­u­men­taries on Jack­son Pol­lock and Fran­cis Bacon, or from the men­tion of his long-run­ning BBC Radio 4 pro­gram In Our Time. But while that show cer­tain­ly has cov­ered sci­en­tif­ic top­ics — evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gy, genet­ic muta­tion, the neu­tri­no — Bragg and his pan­els of experts spend even more air­time dis­cussing sub­jects claimed by the human­i­ties. Some of its most inter­est­ing moments hap­pen at the crossover, with sci­en­tif­ic angles on the human­is­tic and vice ver­sa; “Goethe and the Sci­ence of the Enlight­en­ment” comes to mind, to name but one exam­ple. Where con­ver­sa­tions like those can arise, I dare­say we have cul­ture at its most robust.

But I mere­ly cir­cle around the issue. Brag­g’s five-part Radio 4 series The Val­ue of the Cul­ture deals with the ques­tion of cul­ture’s nature head-on. Need we call cul­ture any­thing more spe­cif­ic than the body of things that mankind makes? Does cul­ture work as a force for good? What does cul­ture look like from an anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive? Must works reach a cer­tain stan­dard, or dis­play cer­tain qual­i­ties, to count as cul­ture? What does the gap between the sci­ences and the human­i­ties mean for cul­ture? How did “mass cul­ture” come about, as opposed to “high cul­ture”? And what does all this say about the cul­ture we have today? Assem­bling his typ­i­cal­ly impres­sive range of lumi­nar­ies from across the British intel­lec­tu­al land­scape, Bragg asks these ques­tions and many more besides, using as a point of depar­ture ninetheenth-cen­tu­ry poet, crit­ic, and school inspec­tor Matthew Arnold’s descrip­tion of cul­ture as “the best which has been thought and said” which pro­vides life its “sweet­ness and light.” But much has changed in how we regard cul­ture since the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and here we have just the pro­gram to get us think­ing hard­er than ever about it.

All episodes of The Val­ue of Cul­ture: Cul­ture and Anar­chy (above), Cul­ture and the Anthro­pol­o­gists, Two Cul­tures, Mass Cul­ture, What’s the Val­ue of Cul­ture Today?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Por­trait of an Artist: Jack­son Pol­lock, the 1987 Doc­u­men­tary Nar­rat­ed by Melvyn Bragg

Fran­cis Bacon on the South Bank Show: A Sin­gu­lar Pro­file of the Sin­gu­lar Painter

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • I am deeply thank­ful for the work of Melvyn Bragg. I am 48 now and I was born right after the mil­i­tary coup in Brazil, which means that my basic edu­ca­tion was deeply impact­ed by the dic­ta­tor­ship empov­er­ish­ment of any­thing relat­ed to human­i­ties and crit­i­cal think­ing. I’ve been fol­low­ing In Our Times with grate­ful­ness and joy, and the week­ly dosis of cul­ture and civ­i­liza­tion are like a dream come true to me.

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